BRADENTON -- "We shall not be moved."
That was the theme of Manatee County NAACP's 2013 Annual Freedom Fund Awards Banquet attended by a crowd of 250 at the Bradenton Municipal Auditorium on Friday.
The phrase seemed to reverberate throughout the night as speaker after speaker touched on the impact of several landmark events and how those events must not dissuade those who wish to fight for civil rights.
This year not only marks the 50-year commemoration of the 1963 March on Washington, but it's the year of the controversial George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin verdict and the Supreme Court's decision to strike down part of the Voting Rights Act, said keynote speaker Val Demings, the former police chief of Orange County.
"What side of history will
you rest," Demings challenged the crowd, imploring them to keep working for the rights of people of all colors despite setbacks.
Demings said of Zimmerman's not guilty verdict in the shooting death of Martin, "I could not recognize justice on that day."
She also said she was stunned that the Supreme Court would strike down part of the 1964 Voting Rights Act, which, in her opinion, was important to marginalized people.
She said she was especially upset that the decision came on the heels of the nation's top court deciding on the side of equality by striking down the Defense of Marriage Act.
"How could they take away so much the next day," Demings said. "It's a strange time in our history. That is why tonight's theme, 'We shall not be moved,' is fitting for where we now stand."
Before Demings took the stage, Harold E. Byrd Jr., a Bradenton City Councilman from Ward 5, was just as forthcoming.
"We know and acknowledge the many battles this great organization has fought for," Byrd said of the NAACP. "However, there are many more battles at the forefront of 2013. The Zimmerman verdict and the U.S. Supreme Court decision striking down a provision in the 1964 Voting Rights Act.
"Locally, we are faced with recent violent attacks and gun violence," Byrd added. "High unemployment, low educational attainment and deteriorating neighborhoods. We have so much to do and it will take organizations like the NAACP, fraternities and sororities and pastors and our churches to solve these problems."
Honorees in historic year
"It was against this backdrop of landmark national events that six local members of the Manatee County community were honored for their achievements.
The 2013 Lifetime Achievement Award went to Versia Pollard, a Manatee County teacher for more than 40 years.
She started her career at First Street Elementary School in the early 1970s and, after three years, moved to Jessie P. Miller where she taught for 29 years. She finished her career as a substitute.
Former Bradenton city councilwoman Marianne Barnebey said of Pollard, who taught her son, Christopher, now 21, "She could take children and do things to make them love school. She had the ability to reach children and bring out their gifts and talents. She had patience."
"She honored the dignity of each child she taught," said Pollard's god child, Rita Smith, quoting one of Pollard's best friends, Stephanie Cronin.
Pollard said she knew she would be a teacher from age six when she took plants and flowers at her childhood home on 17th St. West in Palmetto and called them children.
Palmetto Police Chief Rick Wells was awarded the Community Service Award for his "Strength in Action" group, comprised of local pastors and community leaders, whose mission is to put children and teens on positive life paths.
Adriana Cerrillo of UnidosNow, who appreciated Demings' advice to keep fighting for civil rights, was named the 2013 Unsung Heroine.
Henry Blyden, known for his work in adolescent recovery at Manatee Glens, was presented the Unsung Hero Award.
Prodigious home builder Pat Neal received the Business Industry Award.
Community activist Rodney Jones, a member of the Manatee County School District's EdVantage Core TEAM, won the President's Award.
Richard Dymond, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-748-0411, ext. 6686.